Inspirational cancer survivors Joan McCartney and Nina Cristinacce are the woman behind a ground-breaking new project which aims to dramatically improve both awareness and treatment of people with cancer.
Entitled simply ‘Here I AM’ – Nina and Joan are striving to highlight the beauty of the human form following a cancer diagnosis.
With over 50 people involved – all from Northern Ireland – Here I AM promises to be a truly inspirational photographic exhibition.
It will document each individual’s cancer journey through the medium of bold images alongside inspirational messages from each of the brave models involved.
The six charities Here I AM is supporting include: Macmillan NI, Cancer Focus NI, NI Cancer Fund For Children, Pretty ‘n’ Pink Breast Cancer Charity, Leukaemia and Lymphoma NI and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
Ahead of the official launch at Titanic Buildings on 14 May at the Rockabilly Mayhem Ball, we caught up with Nina. Who explained to us the reasoning behind the Here I AM exhibition, as well as their ambitions to promote a positive message for people who have not only gone through cancer – but also those currently battling the disease.
“It has been a hugely humbling experience to date, having met so many courageous people who exude positivity in the face of adversity….
“I have not heard as much laughter as I did during the photo shoots!”
Nina explains that most of the photographs are of people who have already been through treatment:
“They’ve had surgery. The original idea was to focus on the scars of people – and explore how much their bodies had changed. The idea has evolved from there. Because not all cancers have scars. The likes of Leukaemia do not have scars. A lot of scars you can’t see – like Cervical Cancer. So it really became more about the person behind the cancer.
“Once Joan and I started getting some of the images from photo-shoots back, we started noticing that you can see a lot in a person’s face. You can see a lot in their eyes.
“The original thought was that we would get around 20 volunteers. We thought that would give us a wide variety of people; ages; male; female; possibly children – we didn’t know. But we’ve actually ended up with just over 50 models.
“The youngest model is just seven. We also had a 14-year-old-girl. And they go right up to the mid 80’s. Male and female.
“We photographed very different types of cancer; some with extremely rare forms. Then they write a little bit about what they’ve been through and we asked everyone to pinpoint one thing, one message they’d like to get across.
“Because there’s so many different forms of cancer that maybe some people don’t know what to look out for. Or even how to deal with something. It’s about the whole story. It’s basically the truth about cancer.
“That’s how we decided to look at it. Rather than just being about scars – it’s the truth about cancer: This is what it looks like.
“We understand there are some photographs you might look at and think ‘that’s not a very positive thing.’ But you see the person. And then you see the person fully dressed. And you wouldn’t know. And that’s like so many things in life…
“Because all you see is all that that person chooses to project to the world.
“That applies to a lot of things in life. And the thing with cancer is that afterwards there is a lot of depression…
“Along with the photographs, that’s what Here I AM is focusing on – how people feel when they’ve completed treatment. Because after treatment there seems to be a bit of a chasm. People often feel like they’ve been through their operation, they’ve been through their chemo, radiotherapy; and then it’s almost like – you’re done. A lot of people feel like they can’t ask for help because there’s other people that are actively going through the cancer treatment and maybe they feel like they aren’t deserving of them…
“But there are amazing services out there. We’re supporting six charities but we would have loved to be able to support them all.”
Discussing charity work, Nina explains that meeting people who have gone through similar experiences has proved priceless:
“I’m a Cancer Survivor myself. My first experience was when my grandfather had cancer and passed away. My dad had cancer twice – but he lived to be 89! My mum – whom we didn’t actually know had cancer – also sadly passed away from Ovarian Cancer.
“I’d got to the stage where I wanted to give something back and I don’t know what I want to do. I did fundraising but wanted to do more.
“Joan is the reason that this project has become so big, she has been instrumental in driving the whole project forward. Her experience in the voluntary sector has been invaluable, her enthusiasm and creativity never ending.
“She was actually my lead volunteer at MacMillan which is how I got to know her.
“I’d made a comment about a lady named Beth who put on a photograph on social media. She’s had a mastectomy; drains; a hysterectomy – she had a lot of scars – and Joan took that idea and ran with it.
“I had had a huge issue with my own body image. And I was so impressed with how brave she was and how fantastic it was that this image was out there. It had been taken down by Facebook. She lost a lot of friends by putting it up as some people found it ‘offensive.’
“And that was our inspiration. You can’t be offended by a battle that somebody has been through. This woman is standing there, saying ‘This is who I am.’ She wanted to educate. And that’s where the name came from.
“Here I AM: this is what I am. Who I am. This is me. If you don’t like it, if you’re offended by it – I don’t want to know. Because you’ve been through so much already, you don’t deserve that.
“From there we knew we wanted to do something concentrating on people – and they are all local people.”
Describing the volunteers, Nina is brimming with pride at their bravery:
“A lot of people don’t actually talk about cancer. What they look like; how they feel; any of that. And that was a really nice thing with these people all coming in to the studio. You’ve got that automatic bond. You’ve got something that holds you all together, and the laughter! It was just brilliant. Fantastic.
“Everyone approaches it differently. For me, there was simply no question that I wasn’t getting through it. My children were very young at the time. So laughter was a big thing for me. I was always very positive. But it is difficult. People always ask ‘how can you stay positive?’ It’s hard to be positive when you’ve got that news. But it is amazing to meet people who get though it.”
So what are Nina’s hopes for the ground-breaking campaign?
“I hope it’s an inspiration. Even if this project just helps one person. To look at this person who has beat all the odds. You read some people’s stories and just think ‘how did they manage to get through that?’ And they have. Their story does need to be told. It needs to be out there. We all do need to take strength from that.
“It’s inspirational. It’s recognising other people are going through it and have survived it.
“This project also helped highlight our famous Northern Ireland humour! From the fillets, bras and all the rest of it! Stuff people simply would never have ever spoken about before. It’s great to get together with people who’ve been through it too.”
Taking inspiration from support, Nina explains that she and Joan now have even bigger plans for the future.
“We’d like to make Here I AM a registered charity and organise support groups. One that challenges yourself, one where you go and do things. You’ll maybe do a Yoga class one week; trips and different things to try and get people out and mixing with other people. For both survivors and those going through treatment. Too many times we tell ourselves we can’t do things. But nobody should ever tell you that you can’t do something.
“People do understand, but they sometimes don’t know what to say. That’s a real big barrier. They know you’ve got cancer. And I just say to them: just say ‘hello.’ I lost few friends when I had cancer simply because they didn’t how to deal with it.
“There’s a lot of common threads through people’s stories and it’s about getting it all together and getting it out there.
“It’s not some pariah, or something that shouldn’t be spoken about. If we were all just a bit more open about it and how it affects us you would allow yourself to meet some incredible people who have overcome so much.”
The exhibition will feature a variety of images in both black & white, as well as some in colour, and will feature multiple images of one person.
“In order to tell their journey” Nina explains. “Except where one is so striking that it stands alone.”
Joan and Nina are hosting the Rockabilly Mayhem Ball on Saturday 14 May, which will see the official launch of the stunning photographic exhibition of those living with cancer, to raise awareness of the amazing services provided by local cancer charities and to raise funds for all six cancer charities.
“This is about raising awareness for what these charities do for people who are living with cancer, living through it and also for their families.”
Commencing at 7pm with a drinks reception in the Atrium, all the photographs will be on display for the first time.
This will be followed by a fantastic three course ‘White Star Line Dinner’ in the Titanic Suite; a vintage inspired fashion show courtesy of Daisy Mae Boutique and Excel Clothing; live music from The Sabrejets; auction (both live and silent) and fabulous raffle. There will also be a few surprises along the way!
Dress is rockabilly/vintage semi formal for ladies and men: drapes, tuxedo, suit, dinner suit and tickets are only £40 each or a table of 10 is £400.
Check out rockabilly-mayhem-ball-presented-by-here-i-am for more info including how to buy tickets.
Here I AM – Joan McCartney and Nina Cristinacce
Photographers for the project – Michael Barbour, Mark Mc Grogan, Brian Sherry, Shelley Rodgers, James Hislop, Carrie Davenport and Karolina Harper.
Hair Stylists – Trudy Nicholl from Solo/Wig Boutique at Solo, Craig Edgar from Solo, Emma Troupe from The Best Little Hair House and Yasmin Faye.
Make up Artists – Erin Mc Namara, Siobhan Edgar, Amy Rachel Clarke, Siobhan Rosier, Natalie Gilliland and Susan Keatings.
Studio – For 3 of the shoots was Belfast Studio Rental courtesy of Rob Durston. Also Clandeboye Estate, courtesy of Karen Kane and the Belfast Community Circus School.